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IBM: Like the Web, virtual worlds will be become business friendly

At an event at the MIT Media Lab, IBM executives and virtual world experts sketch out the potential and pitfalls of virtual worlds for business and society.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--To IBM, today's virtual worlds like Second Life and World of Warcraft are simply a glimpse of the future Web, with the same potential to transform business and society as the first waves of the Web.

IBM hosted an event at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab on Friday, where experts offered insights into how virtual worlds can be applied to make businesses more effective and address societal problems.

MIT Media Lab Director Frank Moss spoke about how virtual worlds will change identities. Martin LaMonica/CNET Networks

The daylong event brought together IBMers, academics, media and representatives from businesses exploring virtual worlds, including those from entertainment, retail and the hotel industry.

Although some of the attendees expressed concern that virtual worlds are overhyped and insecure, IBM's Colin Parris vice president of digital convergence said the combination of today's virtual world with existing Web services, such as commerce and search, will lead to "profound transformations" to societies and enterprises.

"We are now at the threshold of newly emerging (Web) platforms focused on participation and collaboration," he said. "The power of collaboration and community are one of the major drivers of innovation as companies figure out the capabilities to accelerate collaborative innovation."

Parris described some of IBM's initial uses of virtual worlds in a business context, including enhanced training, immersive social-shopping experiences, simulations for learning and rehearsing business processes, and event hosting.

MIT Media Lab Director Frank Moss, who also spoke Friday morning, said society is in the very early days--"the first minutes, perhaps seconds, of the 3D Internet"--of virtual worlds. Several students are working on projects involving virtual worlds, such as finding easier ways to construct buildings and socialize.

Virtual worlds will be combined with advancements in understanding human behavior and pervasive computing, he said.

Colin Parris
IBM's vice president of digital convergence, Colin Parris, said virtual worlds will lead to profound transformations in business and society. Martin LaMonica/CNET

One outcome will be the transformation of people's identities and social interactions. Moss showed the video of a handicapped person with cerebral palsy conducting a musical performance he had composed at a recent MIT event.

"We will be blurring the distinction between human abilities and human disabilities," he said. "We're talking about autistic people becoming authors, and amputees becoming athletes, and normal people doing extraordinary things."

Despite the potential laid out by Parris and Moss, they both cautioned that virtual worlds need significant improvements. Attendees during a question-and-answer session also raised concerns over the poor state of security now in virtual worlds.

Parris and Moss also said security and privacy needs to be better addressed in virtual worlds. Other needed improvements include scalability of technical systems and more appropriate content.

Moss said virtual worlds still lack the application that leads to wide-scale use, as the transition to the PC and the Web did in the past.

"We haven't gotten the Lotus 123, the browser, the Google (search) yet," Moss said.